The Wonders of Slot Canyons

There are so many beautiful and amazing natural wonders around the world that sometimes I forget we have beautiful and amazing natural wonders right here in the United States too. (Cue the Santa Clara Vanguard Drum & Bugle Corp playing America the Beautiful.) Last month, Bob and I were fortunate enough to visit one such natural wonder, the Slot Canyons of Horseshoe Bend, on the Navajo Reservation just outside of Page, Arizona. IMG_6377We were on a long weekend getaway with Bob’s sister and her husband, hiking in both Zion and Bryce National Parks—two more natural wonders that we’ll cover in a future newsletter. But we had heard great things about the slot canyons in the area, and took an opportunity to explore.

There are several majestic slot canyons in the Bryce/Zion area and, most, if not all, require a guided tour or permit from the Navajo Reservation. We chose Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon Tours because a) they have the best reviews on Trip Advisor, b) they have their own private slot canyon, and c) they are Navajo and female owned. Our tour had ten people plus a guide, and we were the only 11 people in the canyon.

Formed by the wear and tear of water and wind rushing through rock, IMG_6383slot canyons are much deeper than they are wide, and their color variation is a site to behold. Our tour left from the town of Page, in an open air jeep that easily sat our group of 10. From Page, we drove about three miles onto the Navajo Reservation, before turning off onto a private dirt road. About six bumpy and fun miles later, we arrived at Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyon. Our guide Nick first explained the history of both the Canyon and the family who owns the land that it is on. He also educated us on the area’s flora and fauna and even offered a few IMG_6365excellent tips for slot canyon iPhone photography. It wasn’t long though before we were hiking along the narrow, sandy canyon floor, with its walls reaching high above, and exploring its beautiful colors, shapes, and cracks and crevices.

After our slot canyon experience, Nick drove us to the Horseshoe Bend Overlook (again, in a private location, with only our group of 11) for a sunset view IMG_6441of the Colorado River 1000 feet below. Horseshoe Bend is a horseshoe shaped section of the river, just five miles from the beginning of Grand Canyon National Park. Our cliffside view, with the sun setting in the distance, a few clouds dotting the sky, and the river bend below, was quite a spectacular.

Our tour lasted almost four hours, and cost $120 each. Other popular tours, including the Antelope Slot Canyon, are less expensive and while equally beautiful, they are also significantly more populated. We were delighted with our experience, and felt like the cost was well worth it.

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Follow the Rules—Negotiating EasyJet’s Carry-on Policy

On our most recent trip to Europe, Bob and I spent several days in each of three cities— Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague. When booking our transportation, we pondered the best (and cheapest!) way to get from place to place and decided to fly with EasyJet for two legs, and take the train for the third leg, because we love traveling by train in Europe. With lots of low cost carriers competing for passengers, airfares on discounted European airlines are extremely inexpensive (our flights were about $60 a piece). There are also many options for time of day you wish to travel, and we found EasyJet, well, we found it easy!

Here are a few things to note when booking an airline ticket on a discounted European carrier. EasyJet’s economy fare allows for one carry on bag, but no personal items. This bag can be a traditional maximum carry on size, but unless you are willing to pay a little extra to be an “up front” or “extra leg room” customer, you cannot bring a purse or backpack in addition to a suitcase. We paid an extra $5 apiece—again, inexpensive in our opinion—to be “up front” customers and we each carried a suitcase on board, along with a good-sized tote bag for me (the Baggallini Avenue Tote), and a backpack for Bob. In addition to bringing a personal item on board, we also got seats in the front of the plane and boarded first. I don’t care about boarding early, but it sure is nice to get off the plane immediately, and not have to wait for what seems like an eternity for everyone else to disembark.

When entering our gate prior to boarding, EasyJet had employees checking boarding passes against the number of carry-ons, and making travelers with questionably sized suitcases put them into the “box” to measure their size. Several passengers were told to check their bags, because they were too fat, or slightly too long to fit in the box. We had internationally sized carry-ons from Briggs & Riley that fit easily into the box, so we had no problem. Generally speaking, internationally sized carry on bags are an inch or so shorter than their domestic counterparts. Most airlines (even discount carriers) however, do allow for the traditional 22 x 14 x 9 domestic size. Keep in mind that there are much tighter weight restrictions on some discounted European carriers. Some airlines restrict a carry on to be no more than 15 pounds. If you’re worried about the size or weight of your suitcase, check with every carrier that you will be flying on. It’s both annoying and expensive to have to check a bag at the airport, when you were planning to carry it on.

EasyJet is a “no frills” airline. All on board food and drink costs money, even water. Unlike Allegiant however, we did have assigned seats for no extra charge.

One more interesting note—on none of our inter-European flights did anyone check our passports. Not when we were going through security, not when we boarded the plane, nothing. Hmmm.

Bodies in the Sand, Tropical Drink Melting in Your Hand

When our daughter Sarah was in middle school, she had a much earlier bedtime than most of her schoolmates (Sarah is about to graduate college, with a math degree that she completed in three years. She is headed to graduate school to get her masters in teaching. You’re welcome Sarah.) She struggled with getting to sleep, and would find one reason after another to come downstairs and talk to Bob or I. She’d often find Bob watching episodes of Seinfeld and in an attempt to delay her return to bed, she’d ask Bob questions about it, who the characters were, what it was about, etc. She got so mad when Bob would tell her the show was “about nothing.

I was reminded of this when reading an article on Afar recently in which the author said she had a hard time doing “absolutely nothing” when on a beach vacation. Everyone’s interpretation of absolutely nothing is entirely different of course, as the Seinfeld analogy details, but I must admit, doing absolutely nothing when on a beach vacation has never been hard for me. beach belizeBob and I often take city vacations, where we’re on the go all the time, walking, eating, and trying to burn a few extra calories so we can eat more. But when we go on a beach vacation, a switch in my brain just seems to turn off, and I can sit in a lounge chair staring at the ocean for hours on end. Sure, I probably have a book or magazine with me, but I don’t always read it. My ideal beach vacation is lounging under an umbrella, with water, a magazine and book at the ready, and slowly sipping on a cold cocktail. IMG_1125And if my girlfriends are nearby, even better. We talk when we have something to say—I don’t know what it is with girlfriends, but we always seem to have something to say—we nap when we’re sleepy, jump in the ocean when we’re hot, and eat things that take the least amount of time to prepare, because we’re on vacation, and cooking on vacation is for the birds. It’s also ideal when there are others at the beach, because people watching is another fun doing-nothing pastime.

Mastering the art of doing nothing is, in my opinion, really not that hard. I try, when possible, to get a little exercise in before the beach lounging begins, so my muscles don’t atrophy. IMG_0027I leave my phone/computer/wifi off, figuring if the world got along without me for so many years before cell phones existed, they can get along without me for a few days when I’m on the beach. And I just let go of the idea that a vacation has to be about doing all kinds of things. A vacation is about what you want it to be about. If that means laying in a hotel room watching movies (I’ve been known to do this with my girlfriends too), that is a vacation as well. If it means reading a dozen Harlequin romance novels, good on you. And if it means laying on the beach in some exotic destination (or even the Oregon Coast) and doing absolutely nothing, you go. And please, take me with you.

These Streets will Make You Feel Brand New—Walking in New York

by Nancy Bestor

New York City has an endless number of outstanding sites. Whether it’s the view from the Empire State Building, the 9/11 Memorial, the lovely Brooklyn Bridge, the Metropolitan Museum, or any of a myriad of other great stops, there are certainly days, weeks, and even years worth of fascinating Big Apple attractions. But for me, New York is also about walking – meandering through different neighborhoods, exploring architecture, and people watching. IMG_6149On a recent trip with my sister, I did just that. I pooh-poohed the idea of any big attractions, and instead just walked and walked, stopping to take in alluring side streets, appealing shops, and gorgeous hotel lobbies, and enjoying the New York scene. Along the way I managed to sneak in a few snacks, some cocktails, and a half priced off-Broadway show.

One morning, after meeting a New York friend for breakfast near Columbia University, IMG_6141I walked back downtown, a 60-plus block journey along Central Park West, enjoying the dog walkers, the attractive apartment buildings with ornate doors and dapper doormen, and the views of Central Park.

On another occasion I trekked to the Chelsea neighborhood, to enjoy its 1.5 mile long High Line, New York City’s elevated park, located 30 feet above ground level on a former train viaduct. I can’t visit New York and not walk the High Line, and even though flowers were not yet in full bloom, High Line Park’s trees and shrubs were beautiful, IMG_6166as was the city view in every direction. The High Line just might be my favorite thing about New York. Well, one of my favorites anyway.

I also walked through the Garment District and stopped in at another favorite, the free museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. One of the current exhibits examines the relationship between the fashion industry and body politics, with corsets and other garments for women of all sizes throughout the ages on display. IMG_6162There was clothing for pregnant women from the 1940’s and 50’s that did everything it could to hide their pregnancy. Fortunately times have changed, at least in some regards. But don’t get me started.

Later that afternoon, I met up with my traveling companions and we taxied to Chinatown, which with traffic took almost as long as a walk would have taken. We were hungry though, and needed sustenance from Vanessa’s Dumpling House (another NYC favorite!) before we could consider walking any further.

When my steamed dumplings and peking duck pancake had filled my belly IMG_6597and given me the strength to carry on, we wandered around China Town and stopped to watch a few minutes of an intense game of handball, a sport that is apparently very popular in New York City. I thought it would be like the handball games I played in elementary school, but I was mistaken, as it’s taken very seriously. Good thing I figured that out before asking to play.

Afterwards we made our way, this time via the subway, to Times Square, where we waited about 15 minutes in the TKTS play line for half price tickets to an evening off-Broadway play. Here’s a secret, if you download the TKTS app onto your phone, you can see in advance which plays and musicals are being discounted for the day. The ticket booth for evening performances opens at 3, and when we arrived at 2:45, the line for musicals was already nearly two hours long. But the play line, on the other side of the booth, was short. We saw Amy and the Orphans that night, for $50 each. It was a great play and a great price. And we didn’t wait in line for two hours either.

Note:

If you’re a regular reader of our newsletters, (thank you!), you’ll know I’m a big fan of public transportation. And New York’s subway system does not disappoint. I took the subway from JFK airport, and my total travel time was about an hour and half. My sister and her crew arrived earlier than I, and their taxi ride was only about 20 minutes shorter and $60 split three ways. My ride was $9. Single subway rides in the city are $3, and you can buy a pass if you plan to ride more often, which lowers the per ride cost. I find the NY subway full of fascinating people, and by the time I get off at my station, I’ve made up a whole life story for everyone sitting around me.

Every Single Big Ol’ Jet Aero Liner

By Robert Bestor

I love the internet and try not to take it for granted. As we all know, it has everything. And though it has everything, for me, websites can almost all be placed into two categories: 1) those with vital and valuable information and data that allows me to educate myself and make quality decisions, and 2) those that offer little more than mildly amusing, time sucking, and mindless “entertainment” that distracts me from doing whatever it is I really should be doing. 

While that may be a slight over-simplification, I do find it to be true. I also find that, wonderfully, there are some sites that fit simultaneously into both categories. FlightAware.com is an excellent example. It is both highly informative and can be a fabulously fascinating waste of time. On top of that, to me, it’s a mind-blowing example of modern technology.

Simply click this link. On this FlightAware.com page, in real time, you’ll see every single commercial flight currently operating over the United States. Hit the zoom out button a couple of times and you’ll see every single commercial flight currently operating everywhere in the world!

Then click on any one of the plane icons and you’ll get information like departure city, arrival city, elapsed time, time remaining, aircraft type, air speed, altitude and more. How’s that for starters? FlightAware offers much more. I’ve done a decent amount of browsing and am still drilling down and finding new and fascinating data.

It does have practical purposes too. I used it recently to check the on-time history of a winter flight we had scheduled. FlightAware’s data informed us that at the time, the flight had recent history of both significant delays and cancellations. We had a tight connection to make, and due to weather, the odds of us making it were not in our favor. So for a minimal change fee (story in our March e-News) we switched to an earlier flight and removed all doubt. 

FlightAware integrates real-time data from thousands of sources worldwide. And I do not have the brain power to imagine how they tie all together so neatly and seamlessly. But I sure do find it handy, entertaining, and amazing to get the latest data on any flight anywhere on the planet.

Oops. Looks like Tap Portugal flight #22 from Lisbon to Salvador, Brazil is running 22 minutes late. It’s scheduled to land at 9:00 pm local time. I wonder if they’ll be able to make that up? I see that it’s an Airbus A330-200 twin jet currently traveling 526 mph at 38,000 feet. Looks like it’s been late a few times recently……etc., etc., etc,.

Just Be Right There When the Whistle Blows

While Bob and I love to walk when we are traveling, we also enjoy taking public transportation. It feels like we are locals when we take the bus or train with regular folk who are commuting to work, school or the market. And coming from a country where public transit leaves a little something to be desired, it’s really delightful to get on a train in downtown Berlin for example, and five hours later, after watching the countryside slide by, arrive in downtown Prague. Heck if you stop at the market for some yummy treats and tasty beverages, it’s the perfect spot for lunch with a great view. 

On our recent winter trip to Europe, we took advantage of all the public transit we could, from trams in Amsterdam to trains in Berlin and buses in Prague. All were easy to navigate, even when hauling our carry on sized suitcases. I’m not knocking taxis or Uber/Lyft (well, maybe I’d knock Las Vegas taxis), but if I have the choice, I’m almost always going to take public transportation.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. When I was about seven, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system opened, and I remember very clearly that it was the future. BART trains even went underground, through the San Francisco Bay, into the city. I spent a lot of time on BART in my day. In high school, I took BART home every day from school in Oakland to San Leandro. And once I started my career, I commuted by bus and/or BART to San Francisco from the East Bay on a daily basis. BART has improved a bit since then, but it still doesn’t come close to the public transit options in most European cities. Here are some of the reasons I believe European public transit is better. 

Public transit in Europe is extremely convenient, and serves all cities. We can’t get on a train in Ashland, Oregon without driving at least an hour and a half to Klamath Falls for the Amtrak. Everywhere we’ve been in Europe, we have been able to take a bus or train to a major station and transfer to a train heading to another country. Easy as pie.

When a European bus, tram, or train schedule tells you it is leaving at a certain time, it really leaves at that time. And arrivals happen on schedule as well. We were one minute late getting to an Amsterdam tram stop one morning (I totally blame Bob, but bygones), and sure enough, the tram was disappearing around the corner just a short way past our stop. By comparison, Amtrak trains, specifically long-distance ones, have a remarkably poor on-time performance record.

The purchase of tickets is usually on the honor system and I enjoy not hassling with ticket slots and narrow turnstiles. You buy a ticket, validate it at a station, then get on the train, tram or bus. I’m sure the fines for not having a ticket are steep, and everyone I noticed seemed to have a pass or ticket that they validated. It just seems so much more civilized. And yet at the same time, I don’t think for a minute that this would work in the States. We are, of course, a civilized nation, but I think too many people would not follow the rules. 

Longer train rides are a delight, and so much more pleasant than flying. You can get up and move around. There’s no need to arrive two hours in advance. There’s significantly more leg room, no turbulence and, as mentioned earlier, there are interesting views out the window. There’s often free wifi too! And, with train stations often located right downtown, it’s usually much more convenient to get to the station as opposed to the airport. There’s also something so much more romantic about train travel. I half expect Hercule Poirot to come walking down the aisle, looking for a murderer. Not sure why I equate romance with murder though (watch out Bob). 

Side Note:

Google Maps might be at its best when offering directions from one location to another via public transportation. It tells you exactly when the correct train/tram/bus is arriving, and what time you need to leave your location to catch said train/tram/bus. It also gives exact walking directions to the stop, and then the number of stops to your final destination once on the train, tram or bus. I’m a big fan.

Staying “Fit” While On the Road

This is not an infomercial. I am not going to suggest you buy ginsu knives, even though they come with a six in one tool that chops, slices and peels. I am not even going to link this article to a place you can buy the product I’m about to tell you about, because frankly, I’m just not that business savvy. I am, however, going to tell you why I never travel without a FitBit. 

Like so many things in my life, I came late to the FitBit game. When I was finally getting my own pet rock, my friends had moved on to mood rings. And when I finally got a mood ring, I couldn’t understand why it was always teal (normal), as I really wanted a more exciting mood, like cool or passionate. But I digress. Back to the FitBit.

I knew that a watch that also counted steps and calories burned existed, but I didn’t know much more about it than that. I also didn’t think it was something I needed in my life. It turns out I was wrong. For Christmas I received a FitBit from my husband. You might be wondering if this was a suggestion that I might want to start counting calories in my everyday life. Believe me, I wondered too.

In reality though, Bob and I walk a great deal when we travel, and we often wonder how much we’ve walked on any given day, so the FitBit is a great resource to have when we’re on the road. We took it for the first time on our trip to Europe and Iceland this past winter, and discovered that we do indeed walk a great deal. On this trip we averaged about 9 miles a day. It gave us quite a sense of accomplishment when we were in for the evening and could pat ourselves on the back for all the calories we burned that day. 

The steps walked and calories counted are not the only thing we appreciated from the FitBit on our trip though. It was also great to know what time it was without having to look at my phone. I know watches are quickly becoming obsolete, but it sure is handy to check the time with a quick movement of the wrist, rather than digging into my bag or pocket for my iPhone.

Another cool feature of my FitBit is that it vibrates to notify me when I get texts. It also shows me who the text is from and even displays the beginning of the text, reader-board style. It’s great when traveling to be able to check my FitBit when I get a text to see who it is from, and what the text is about, again, without having to pull out my phone.

There are many styles, sizes and prices of FitBits, all with different options. I’m sad to report however, that it doesn’t change color and tell me I am anything but normal.